Unit and Regimental Histories

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Unit and Regimental Histories

After the end of the American Civil War, a time of healing occurred for former combatants scattered across the Southern United States. The wounds from which these men suffered were both physical and mental. Soldiers reflected on the losses they had witnessed, or attempted to forget the pain. After a period of roughly ten to twenty years, soldiers began to record their wartime experiences.

Soldiers wanted to create a record of their experiences for their families, and also hoped to reconnect with fellow veterans. For some officers, writing a memoir was a way to question war decisions or to defend a brother officer who might have been slighted during the war. Collectively, this recording of wartime experiences comprised a historical record of the regiments, brigades, divisions, corps, and armies of the war.

One type of reminiscence was a presentation of the experiences of an individual soldier. Such recollections provided the first glimpse into the workings of a regiment. As these memoirs were often intended for family members, some of the horrors of war might be edited out. An example of this type of memoir is the one by Leander Stillwell, a Union soldier in the Sixty-First Illinois. Stillwell's memoir conveys both the terror of battle and the humor of everyday soldiering. Another example is a memoir by Sam Watkins of the First Tennessee Volunteers. He recalls a visit from General Robert E. Lee to his camp, writing that "He was a fine looking gentleman, and wore a moustache. He was dressed in blue cottonade and looked like some good boy's grandpa. I felt like going up to him and saying, good evening Uncle Bob! I am not certain at this late date that I did not do so" (Watkins 2003 [1865], p. 11).

As reminiscences began to grow in number, groups of veterans formed organizations to compile and publish histories of their unit, regiment, or brigade. Veterans gathered letters, wrote down stories of their own soldiering, and collected photographs of their particular military unit. Veterans' organizations generally chose an admired officer to produce the history. This person would compile the information into book form, and the veterans would then pool their monies to have the work printed. Such works ranged from detailed histories to mere annotated rosters of soldiers with photographs. One example of a carefully assembled regimental history is History of the Thirty-Sixth Regiment Illinois Volunteers (1876), by Lyman G. Bennett and William M. Haigh. A classical example of a memoir from the Confederate perspective is D. Augustus Dickert's History of Kershaw's Brigade (1866). Unfortunately, there were also cases in which diaries, letters, and photographs were gathered, but no memoir was ever created, as happened with the 154th New York Volunteers. Today, histories of regiments and units continue to be popular; one notable twentieth-century example is John J. Pullen's The Twentieth Maine (1957).

Reminiscences were sometimes written to defend the actions of an officer or his command. Thomas Van Horne's History of the Army of the Cumberland (1875), for example, was more than a memoir of the Army of the Cumberland; it was also an attempt to defend the record of Major General George H. Thomas, who had been slighted by other general officers toward the end of the conflict.

States also contracted with individuals to produce a record of the contribution made by their regiments. Such histories generally include rosters and brief histories of regiments formed in the 1860s. In addition, they could be drawn into the competition between states to prove which had provided the greatest number of men and officers to their side of the war. For example, Walter Clark's Histories of the Several Regiments and Battalions from North Carolina (1901) sought to substantiate North Carolina's claim that it had provided the most troops to the Confederacy. Clark renumbered several regiments, giving them high numbers, and thereby increased the apparent number of North Carolina regiments.

Early unit and regimental histories played a role in the creation of the postwar historiography of the American Civil War. They provide valuable insight into the thoughts of soldiers, both right after the conflict and some twenty years afterward.


Bennett, Lyman G., and William M. Haigh. History of the Thirty-Sixth Regiment Illinois Volunteers during the War of the Rebellion. Aurora, IL: Knickerbocker & Hodder, 1876.

Catton, Bruce. Mr. Lincoln's Army. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1951.

Clark, Walter, ed. Histories of the Several Regiments and Battalions from North Carolina, in the Great War 1861–65. Raleigh, NC: E. M. Uzzell, 1901.

Connelly, Thomas L. Autumn of Glory: The Army of Tennessee, 1862–1865. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1971.

Dickert, D. Augustus. History of Kershaw's Brigade. Newberry, SC: E. H. Aull, 1899.

Dunkelman, Mark H. Brothers One and All: Espirit de Corps in a Civil War Regiment. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University, 2004.

Freeman, Douglas Southall. Lee's Lieutenants: A Study in Command. New York: C. Scribner's Sons, 1942–1944.

Pullen, John J. The Twentieth Maine: A Volunteer Regiment in the Civil War. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1957.

Stillwell, Leander. The Story of the Common Soldier in the Civil War, 1861–1865. Erie, KS: Franklin Hudson Publishing Company, 1920.

Van Home, Thomas B. History of the Army of the Cumberland: Its Organization, Campaigns, and Battles. Cincinnati, OH: Robert Clarke, 1875.

Watkins, Samuel R. "Co. Aytch:" A Confederate Memoir of the Civil War. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2003.

Wiley, Bell Irvin. The Life of Billy Yank. Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill, 1952.

Wiley, Bell Irvin. The Life of Johnny Reb. Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill, 1953.

Worsham, John H. One of Jackson's Foot Cavalry: His Experience and What He Saw During the War, 1861–1865. New York: Neale Publishing Company, 1912.

William H. Brown